Welcome to Module 4
Lesson 2: Bias, Discrimination, and Models of the World
Buddhism & Quantum Physics
Lesson 2: Bias, Discrimination, and Models of the World
During the course of this lesson, you will:
- Deepen your knowledge of the differences between classical and quantum physics;
- Investigate how to overcome bias and refine your view of reality;
- Explore the Buddhist understanding of ultimate and conventional reality.
This lesson begins with an explanation of the differences between quantum and classical models of reality, discussing how to overcome bias by more accurate and realistic worldviews. You will learn the difference between conventional reality and the Buddhist view of conventional reality, juxtaposed with scientific discourse on the nature of reality.
2a. Models in Classical and Quantum Physics
According to Prof. Carlo Rovelli, Buddhism is often a preferred religion for scientists because of its open-minded, critical inquiry into the nature of reality. Nāgārjuna’s philosophy is particularly strong in this regard because it questions aspects of reality that seem superficially obvious, but which reveal deeper truths on closer inspection, as is often the case with scientific investigation. However, this relationship between science and Buddhism is reciprocal: it is not just Buddhism that can help science, but the reverse is also true. For example, some Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns have been instructed by HH Dalai Lama to study quantum mechanics to better understand emptiness, and he himself complements his daily meditation with the study of quantum physics.
In this module, Geshe Tenzin Namdak expresses how he finds it it helpful to apply the theories of quantum mechanics to ideas of karma, cause and effect, and emptiness, so that one can start to observe the similarities and the connections between them, as well as the differences. More generally, he believes that practitioners can and should learn from other interpretations outside the traditional canon of Buddhist texts. According to Buddhism, the main cause of suffering is a profound lack of clarity and understanding, caused by our long habituation to mistaken patterns of thought – mistaken in that they lead us to apprehend things as inherently existing. In other words, according to Geshe Namdak, the more different forms of epistemological reasoning we apply, and the more empirical verifications we undertake, the better we can break free of ingrained habits of thought that prevent us from realizing how things really exist.
Biases affect how reality is perceived, and the scientific method can be seen as a tool that eliminates bias and erroneous assumptions to progressively refine our worldview. At the beginning of the 20th century, a number of experiments led to the foundations of quantum mechanics, forcing scientists to abandon some of their fundamental hypotheses: in particular, the idea that the world is made of solid building blocks, whose existence is independent from the process of observation. For example, Werner Heisenberg’s (1901-1976) uncertainty principle does not regard atoms and electrons as objects moving in space along distinct, univocally defined trajectories, causing a move away from the formerly held biases of classical physics.
More broadly speaking, our understanding of objects and concepts is influenced by habitual ways of thinking, leading to deeply ingrained patterns of thought and ways of seeing reality. Most schools of Buddhist philosophy agree on the fact that our cognitive bias is influenced by previous mental conceptions. By cultivating a deeper awareness of our habitual ways of thinking and an attitude of nonattachment towards our views and prejudices, Buddhist practice can be a help to us in overcoming the obstacles that often prevent us from asking the necessary questions, in science as well as in life. Nāgārjuna’s insight that entities do not have any real existence outside of their relative relationship with other entities can thus help us to overcome our ‘metaphysical prejudices’orbiases,such as the convictionthat everyday objects (or subatomic particles) exist solidly and independently from the rest of the universe. This understanding is integral to Prof. Rovelli’s relational interpretation of quantum mechanics (as well as Einstein’s Theory of Relativity).
2b. Ultimate and Conventional Reality
Nagarjuna’s philosophy is grounded in the notion of the ‘Two Truths,’ which describes how our view of the world can be approached from the two perspectives of conventional and ultimate reality. If one examines the true mode of existence of any entity, it becomes clear that everything exists in dependence on something else – in other words, any phenomenon is comprised of other elements that are not ‘itself’. Phenomena do not have an inherent existence of their own and are therefore said to be empty of an autonomous self. On an ultimate level, this emptiness of inherent existence is the only mode of being that can withstand logical analysis.
On the other hand, our everyday life experience (e.g., ‘here is my pen’) is also real, albeit in another sense – on a conventional level. Although the pen is ultimately empty (i.e., empty of inherent existence), it nevertheless exists relatively and has an everyday usefulness in relation to other relatively existing objects (like a piece of paper). Another example to explain this difference: in conventional reality a pair of glasses exists on a mundane level, as they can be seen, worn and experienced. In terms of ultimate reality, however, the question arises: in what sense do the glasses actually exist? Nagarjuna’s answer would be that they do not: if one tries to find what we conventionally refer to as ‘glasses’, this entity eludes and defies rational analysis, as the glasses are themselves made up of glass, metal, molecules, etc – and therefore are not an independently existing self, but rather something relatively existing. (This way of reasoning will be explained in more detail in the third section of this module, ‘Emptiness and three levels of dependent origination’.)
While the distinction between ultimate and conventional is fundamental to Nāgārjuna’s philosophy, it is important to recognise that he was not referring to two different realities; instead, he described one reality that can be considered from these two different perspectives, each of which is entirely valid on its own terms; in that sense, they co-exist. The ‘Two Truths’ could be said to echo the duality of the classical and quantum realms, both of which describe the same reality but from different perspectives; objects appear relatively solid and unchanging from our everyday perspective, while the quantum behaviour of their subatomic components reveals how that apparent stability is but an illusion.
Nagarjuna’s approach can therefore help in overcoming the natural bias towards seeing objects and concepts as separate and solid, i.e., mistaking their relative appearance for their ultimate nature. Whereas a chair may conventionally appear as a solid, unitary, and unchanging entity, that apparent stability is revealed to be an illusion through deeper analytical reasoning. Similarly, scientists would agree that, despite appearances, a chair is not fundamentally solid, nor unitary, nor unchanging. At the quantum level, entities lack the same kind of ‘solidity’ as objects at the macroscopic level. They are certainly not the billiard-ball-like particles depicted in a typical representation of an atom. Instead, they can be seen as mutually interacting ‘potentials’ that exist in a probabilistic state of uncertainty. They are as much ‘energy’ as they are ‘matter’. They are, in some sense, reliant on interactions with other entities, or observers, before they ‘manifest’ whatever qualities they possess. They can also be characterised as excitations in quantum fields, and possess a wave-like aspect, stretching out to infinity, as well as a particle-like aspect focused on a single point in space and time. In all these senses, quantum entities can be described as ‘empty’.
As discussed in the previous lesson, the third level of dependent origination takes place on a cognitive level, as the mind puts a label on a collection of parts brought together by causes and conditions and projects inherent existence unto it. Similarly, in quantum mechanics, the observer plays a crucial role in determining the properties of the observed system, as the very process of measurement is thought to cause the collapse of the wave function to a single state. In the module 5, Prof. Rovelli and Geshe Namdak discuss the role of the mind in quantum mechanics and Buddhism, discussing the nature of consciousness and the connections between the brain and mental processes.